1 banner 3J.C. Williamson & Maggie Moore (photos by J. Noble, Melbourne, 1874) (NLA) – Character sketches as John Stofel and his daughter, Lizzie in Struck Oil

With a background in journalism, CLAUDE MCKAY was initially appointed as a private secretary to J.C. Williamson in April 1908, before subsequently becoming press agent, reader of plays and directing the advertising policy of J.C. Williamson Ltd. for the next 11 years. In 1952 McKay penned the following reminiscence of JCW for The Sunday Herald.

When Mr. J.C. Williamson was governing director of “The Firm,” the theatre in Australia reached its most brilliant period. As many as fifteen touring companies were on the Australian and New Zealand circuit. Six theatres and two music halls provided entertainment for Sydney. Her Majesty’s was the most distinguished theatre, and housed always the principal Williamson attraction. It is questionable if anywhere in the Empire there was a more powerful theatrical organisation than Williamson directed. He knew show business on both sides of the curtain and the theatre was his sole existence. He was a striking personality and a familiar figure in all the capitals of the world where the theatre flourished. When he passed on the vitality his management had imparted was never regained.

James Cassius Williamson came to this country from USA with Maggie Moore and a trump card in Struck Oil.1 The legend is that the old melodrama was the foundation of his fortune. But before he obtained his command of the theatrical field Williamson had his ups and downs. The situation was desperate at the final rehearsal in the nineties of Djin–Djin , a pantomime written by his then secretary, Bert Royle. For Williamson told the company that all he had and more was in the production, and that it was in their hands when the curtain went up the following night whether they sank or swam. Djin–Djin was a resounding success, and never again was Williamson to bow anything but a full treasury.2

He became probably the most powerful theatrical entrepreneur in the Empire. “Williamson is in London” was exciting news to authors and actors thereafter for a quarter of a century. Whether he staged the work of dramatists or not he bought the Australian rights to do so. This effectively shut out anyone who thought of invading his territory. Authors wanted ready money which Williamson had, and he purchased their plays at bargain basement prices.

One of his “buys” was the Operas of Gilbert and Sullivan. At the time pirated versions were enriching managers in America. The copyright laws were full of pitfalls, and Williamson made a deal with D’Oyly Carte to pay £200 a year to stage in Australia and New Zealand whatever the famous librettist and composer let Carte have for the Savoy.

He was hurrying from London to Australia with the scene plot and score of The Gondoliers, Williamson once told me, when in New York he found that he had left the orchestral parts behind him. He scared up a musician to score them, and in a few days was on his way to San Francisco to catch the ship to Sydney.

“The musician who did the orchestration,” he related, “was a young man named Phillip Sousa, of whom you would have heard.” Sousa’s orchestration was still being used in revivals of The Gondoliers when Williamson was alive and for all I know it still is.3

Williamson had a custom of engaging newspaper men as secretaries, and I was supposed to fill that hazardous occupation as well. For there was a high rate of mortality in the job. As well be secretary for W.M. Hughes in later years. Fortunately for me, Williamson had a highly competent secretary in Miss Cissie Jamieson. 

I don’t think I ever took more than half a dozen letters from his dictation. One, I recall, was to Bernard Shaw. (Critics were demanding Shavian theatre and Williamson bowed finally to their insistence.)4 The letter was long and disingenuous; it told of a backward cultural country, of meagre population and of a manager’s foolhardiness in

attempting to offer it intellectual drama. It spelt, of course, financial loss and by reason of this being inevitable, five guineas a performance was a reckless offer to make for plays for eclectic audiences, if such existed in Australia.

The old boy was manifestly pleased with this appeal for mercy and the letter went off. A month or so later he passed Shaw’s reply over to me. It was sardonically instructive in vital statistics, wealth of our cities, the date when compulsory education was introduced here, the standing of our universities (listed), the flourishing condition of theatres, and much about ourselves of which the writer was surprised Mr. Williamson should be ignorant. In all the circumstances the Shaw royalties for Sydney and Melbourne were 15 per cent, of gross takings and 10 per cent, in other State capitals. “He's as good a businessman as he is an author and that’s saying a lot,” commented Williamson wryly.

It was his policy nevertheless to keep abreast of the development of the drama in London, New York and Europe. Many times he confirmed this by stating it as his belief that a gap could occur which it would be difficult to bridge; that if we didn't keep pace with the movement of drama where the theatre was vital, our theatre as a living force would cease to be.

He had an instinct for both sides of the curtain and a genuine love of the stage. He was a true cosmopolitan and the best things in life were good enough for him. So far as he could be said to have a home, it was in the subdued elegance of a mansion at Elizabeth Bay. Everything he surrounded himself with was of the best. Longstaff had painted his portrait and the portraits of his two girls, and hung on the walls were the landscapes of Australia’s most gifted artists of the period.

He was an easy host and you would be a sybarite when he lunched you, he recommending a wine and taking keen pleasure in your enjoyment of it. He had a claret that was truly poetic. It was from Queen Victoria’s bin. He bought it from her wine merchant at her death, securing all that was left in the merchant’s cellar.

Once on a mission for him to Hollywood, my dining-room steward gave me a clue to Williamson's philosophy of being able to do without the necessities of life if he could have the luxuries. Somehow Williamson’s name came up.

“Ah,” said the steward, leaning lightly over my table, “that man Williamson is a genius.” “A genius?” I asked. “Yes, a genius,” he affirmed; “if there’s only one pineapple left on the ship, he gets it.”

Although from America, Williamson disdained the product of their tailors. All his clothes came from Savile Row, his hats from Scott’s, his shoes handmade by a London shoemaker. He was a strikingly handsome man and preserved his figure by eschewing physical exercise in favour of massage. A hansom cab, driven by an old Irish-man took him to and from the theatre. One evening, on calling for him, this jehu said to him through the roof, “Thim's a couple of foine comedians you have at Her Majesty’s, sir, thim Gilbert and Sullivan.”

When I joined him he had taken in two partners as managing directors, Gustave Ramaciotti in Sydney and George Tallis in Melbourne. They each paid £7,500 for a quarter share, Williamson retaining a half interest in the enterprise. Mother Goose returned them more than their investment, Ramaciotti informed me. This pantomime, with Florence Young as principal boy, was the first joint venture of the triumvirate.5

Ramaciotti was then a colonel, and on Saturday mornings would appear at the office in military uniform. He rode a spirited charger, and in order not to prick his mount he showed us how he had inserted two sixpences for rowels so that the animal would be easier held when the spurs were applied. When he left the room, Williamson remarked dryly, “Ramaciotti will be putting someone’s eye out chucking his money about like that!”

Montague Grover, an ex-Williamson secretary, was in my room one afternoon when the Guv’nor looked in. Grover was then editing the Sun. Over the building in which it was housed Williamson held the mortgage. As an incentive, Monte had been given a parcel of shares, and, being aware of this, Williamson began needling him on putting on fat, “like all capitalists.” I put in, “I notice nobody is commenting on my painful thinness.” Next day Williamson sent for me, and handed me a piece of scrip in the Firm. “This might help to fatten you up,” he said.

On rare occasions Williamson would take a particular interest in the stage presentation of a play and it was then one saw his thoroughness in squeezing the last ounce of drama from a scene. I recall his rehearsing of The Climax, a one-act drama.5 Jimmy Atholwood, an old-time actor, was cast as a music master. He had in a dinner scene to pick up a knife, walk round the table, and stab the seducer of his daughter. His dramatic timing was faulty. Williamson acted the business seven or eight times and held the intensity of the situation so that it gripped. Finally he had Atholwood try again.

“Damn it all, he hasn’t got it now,” I couldn’t help exploding. Williamson, whom I hadn’t noticed come into the darkened stalls, was behind me. “No,” he said, “and he never will.”

He set great store on stage business, even in musical comedy. In one of the Gaiety pieces two comedians, in an ancestral room where supper was set, began a burlesque fencing bout with a claymore and a rapier.

“The public won’t think it funny,” pronounced Williamson. “Put a long twisted loaf on the table and a carving knife as well. Fence with them,” he directed. “Burlesque,” he said to me, “must always be with objects familiar to everyone in the audience, the more ridiculous the better.” Anyhow, it got the laughs his way.

He was never tempted to venture into management in London or New York. Nearest he got to it was when George Edwardes, so long supreme in musical comedy at the London Gaiety, got into financial low water, mainly through his racing stable. He had Lehár's The Merry Widow, but was shy on production costs. Williamson let him have £10,000 as a loan. The Viennese hit quickly restored George Edwardes’s fortunes.7

With Carrie Moore transferred from the Gaiety in the title-role and Andrew Higginson as Danilo, The Merry Widow played in Australia to business never heard of before.

At this time Williamson shows were toured in all States and New Zealand. It was a highly organised routing of attractions. But bad patches were sometimes struck, as on the goldfields in Western Australia.  A touring manager’s report on Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie, I remember, amused Williamson. It said that receipts were ruinous as a result of the authorities stopping gold stealing.

About this time opposition of a serious nature came about. Meynell and Gunn found backing to produce The Arcadians with a company of fresh faces.8 The Royal Comic Opera Company, favourites though they were, were hardy perennials, (the chorus also in the veteran class.)  The impact of new principals and rounded dancing limbs the rival management offered gave Williamson’s a much needed shock. The public immediately benefited.

The bid for supremacy lifted the theatre to the highest level of attraction it ever was to know. Meynell and Gunn imported Oscar Asche and Lily Brayton with a London company in Shakespeare; also Ethel Irving in Maugham’s plays;9 Williamson came back with H.B. Irving and his Shakespearean players, Margaret Anglin and Henry Kolker, Genée and her ballet, Melba in grand opera, Maeterlinck’s Blue Bird (Claude Rains as stage manager), a new musical comedy company and a ballyhoo about star engagements ahead.10

16 Oscar Asche Lily BraytonAsche as Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ with his wife as ‘Desdemona’


17 H B Irving Dorothea BairdNational Library of Australia, Canberra

The pace in rivalry was short-lived, however. A merger was the outcome and “the theatrical combine” was with us once again.11 Williamson always preferred it that way. It was the American way of the unassailable might of the theatrical trust of the times. (His own family “trust” secured for them £400,000.) He had come to Australia as other American actor-managers had before him, intending to return to the USA.

The Sunday Herald (Sydney), 5 October 1952, p.9,

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Compiled by Robert Morrison

[1] The 3 act comedy-drama, Struck Oil; or, The Pennsylvania Dutchman, based on the unproduced play The German Recruit by Sam W. Smith, adapted and expanded by Clay Greene as The Deed, or Five Years Away; subsequently retitled with further revisions by J.C. Williamson, premiered at Salt Lake City, Utah on 23 February 1874 and received its Australian premiere at the Theatre Royal, Melbourne on 1 August 1874 for an initial 43 performances. This was followed by a return season of a further 13 performances commencing on Derby Day, 31 October and “every night during the Great Cup Week” concluding on 14 November. The play was then given a “Farewell Performance” as a Complimentary Benefit for the Williamsons on the final night of their Melbourne season on 21 December 1874, resulting in a record tally of 57 performances.

[2] The pantomime Djin-Djin: The Japanese Bogie Man by Bert Royle and J.C. Williamson, with music by Leon Caron and additional numbers by H.J. Pack, premiered at the Princess’s Theatre, Melbourne on 26 December 1895 for a seven week season. Due to the economic depression of the 1890s, which followed on from the collapse of the land boom of the previous decade, the Firm of Williamson and Musgrove was in a serious financial crisis and staging the pantomime was JCW’s last ditch attempt to recover revenue lost from their other failed theatrical productions at the time. The immediate success of the production, which subsequently toured to the other Australian colonies, New Zealand and South Africa, helped to restore JCW’s fortunes.

[3] W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s comic opera The Gondoliers (which had premiered at the Savoy Theatre, London under the management of Richard D’Oyly Carte on 7 December 1889 for a run of 554 performances) received its Australian premiere at the Princess’s Theatre, Melbourne on 25 October 1890 for a run of 8 weeks, closing on Friday, 19 December before going on tour to the other colonies and New Zealand. An aficionado of the works of G&S (on which he modelled his own comic operas) John Philip Sousa was also responsible for re-orchestrating one of the ‘pirate’ productions of their earlier success H.M.S. Pinafore staged in the U.S. in the late 1870s.

[4] JCW subsequently purchased the Australasian performing rights to George Bernard Shaw’s plays and the first of these to be given its professional premiere in Australia by J.C. Williamson Ltd. was Arms and the Man staged at the Theatre Royal, Sydney on 26 February 1910 for an initial run of 5 performances in a season of plays starring Julius Knight. (In later years Shaw’s play The Millionairess received its world premiere performance in English by the Gregan McMahon Players for JCW Ltd. at the King’s Theatre, Melbourne for a season commencing on 7 March 1936. The play was first performed in German at the Burgtheater at the Akademie Theater, Vienna on 4 January 1936. Ironically, Shaw’s play Pygmalion, in which cockney flower seller, Eliza Doolittle is taught to speak correct English by Professor Henry Higgins, was also first performed in German at the Hofburg Theater in Vienna in October 1913, before Beerbohm Tree’s London premiere production at His Majesty’s Theatre in April 1914.)  

[5] The Drury Lane pantomime Mother Goose (with a book by J. Hickory Wood and songs from various sources) was given its Australian premiere at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne on 22 December 1906 for a 12 week run, before going on tour. The cast included Harry Phydora in the title role, Florence Young as the principal boy ‘Colin’ and Celia Ghiloni as the fairy ‘Heartsease’. (The program may be viewed on-line at )

[6] The one-act drama The Climax by Edward Dyson was staged as a matinee attraction at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney commencing on 28 December 1909, as noted in the following item published in The Daily Telegraph (on page 8):

The first of a series of matinees of “The Climax” is announced by the J.C. Williamson management to take place at Her Majesty’s this afternoon at 2. Interest in the event is heightened by it marking Miss Florence Young’s first in a dramatic role, that of Adelina von Hagen, an operatic student. This calls for a soprano, as three songs are incidental to the play. These are “The Even Song,” “Youth’s Appeal to Age,” and “The Song of the Soul,” written for "The Climax” by Carl Breil. Messrs. J.B. Atholwood, Reginald Roberts, and Dion Titheradge will also appear in the cast. The final rehearsal took place yesterday forenoon, under the personal supervision of Mr. J. C. Williamson. “It was one of the most striking plays I saw on my last tour abroad,” he stated yesterday; “it has originality, and takes a sympathetic view of life, while the characters are all very human.”

[7] George Edwardes’ production of the Franz Lehár operetta The Merry Widow in its English adaptation by Basil Hood, with lyrics by Adrian Ross, created a sensation at Daly’s Theatre in London, where it opened on 8 June 1907, starring Lily Elsie and Joseph Coyne and featuring George Graves as ‘Baron Popoff’, Elizabeth Firth as ‘Natalie’ (the wife of Popoff), Robert Evett as ‘Camille’ and W.H. Berry as ‘Nisch’, with costumes by Lucile and Percy Anderson. The London production ran for an extraordinary 778 performances and toured extensively in Great Britain.

The Australian premiere of the Hood and Ross adaptation was given by JCW at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne on Saturday, 16 May 1908 for a run of 11 weeks concluding on 31 July with its 77th performance followed by an Australasian tour. In addition to Carrie Moore in the title role and Andrew Higginson as ‘Prince Danilo’, JCW’s Royal Comic Opera Company cast included Florence Young as ‘Natalie’, Reginald Roberts as ‘Camille’, Victor Gouriet as ‘Baron Popoff’ and Fred Leslie as ‘Nisch’.

[8] The ‘fantastic musical play’ The Arcadians (music by Lionel Monckton and Howard Talbot, lyrics by Arthur Wimperis, book by Mark Ambient and Alexander M. Thompson) premiered at the Shaftesbury Theatre, London on 24 April 1909 under the management of Robert Courtneidge and ran for 809 performances. It received its Australian premiere under the management of Clarke and Meynell at the Theatre Royal, Melbourne on 26 March 1910 for a run of 11 weeks closing on Friday, 10 June, before going on tour. Its cast included Maie Sydney as ‘Sombra’, William Cromwell as ‘James Smith’ aka ‘Simplicitas’, Harold Thorley as ‘Jack Meadows’, Gertrude Gilliam as ‘Eileen Cavanagh’ and Tom Walls as the jockey ‘Peter Doody’.

[9] Oscar Asche and Lily Brayton commenced their Australian tour for Meynell and Gunn at the Theatre Royal in Melbourne with The Taming of the Shrew on 17 July 1909 followed by Othello and As You Like It. The season concluded on Wednesday, 29 September and their company headed to Sydney to open at the Criterion Theatre, followed by seasons in Adelaide at the Theatre Royal and Perth at His Majesty’s Theatre. Return seasons in Melbourne and Sydney ensued in which they played in The Merchant of Venice, Count Hannibal, The Merry Wives of Windsor and The Honeymoon. Initially scheduled for 26 weeks their tour was extended a number of times before finally concluding in Perth at His Majesty’s on 27 August 1910.

English actress, Ethel Irving and her London company commenced a seven-month Australian tour for Clarke and Meynell at the Theatre Royal, Melbourne on 8 July 1911. Her repertoire of plays included The Witness for the Defence by A.E.W. Mason, Somerset Maugham’s Lady Frederick (performed with the one-act curtain-raiser Dolly's Little Bills by Henry Arthur Jones) and Frederick Fenn’s English adaptation of the French play Dame Nature by Henry Bataille. Following seasons in Adelaide and Sydney (plus return visits to Melbourne and Sydney, where her tour concluded on 2 February 1912) JCW Ltd. negotiated for her to pay a flying visit to New Zealand under the Firm's auspices for a six-week tour, which concluded on 21 March 1912.

[10] H.B. Irving (the elder son of Sir Henry) and his wife, Dorothea Baird commenced their six-month Australian tour for JCW at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney on 24 June 1911. Their repertoire of plays included Hamlet, The Lyons Mail, The Bells, Louis XI (made famous by Sir Henry in Britain), and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Canadian-born actress, Margaret Anglin commenced a six-month Australian tour for JCW at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney on Saturday, 27 June 1908 with a company that included New York actor, Henry Kolker. Her repertoire of plays included The Thief, The Truth, The Taming of the Shrew, Camille, Zira and Twelfth Night

The Melba-Williamson Opera Company commenced its Australian tour at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney with a production of La Traviata on 2 September 1911. The company’s repertoire consisted of twelve operas in all, of which Melba sang in six: Verdi’s La Traviata, Rigoletto and Otello; Gounod’s Faust and Roméo et Juliette and Puccini’s La Bohème. The season included two Australian stage premieres, Tosca and Samson and Delilah (which commenced on 5 September under the title of Sansone e Dalila, being sung in Italian), with the remaining operas comprising Madama Butterfly, Carmen, Aida and Lohengrin. The eight-week Sydney season was followed by a truncated season of six weeks at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne commencing on 28 October and the company returned to Sydney for a final two weeks from 11 December.

The Danish ballerina, Adeline Genée and the Imperial Russian Ballet commenced an Australasian tour for JCW at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne on 21 June 1913 performing in the triple bill of Coppelia, The Secret of Suzanne and assorted Divertissements. Other ballets in the company’s repertoire included The Daring of Diane, Les Sylphides, Arabian Nights, La Camargo and Robert Le Diable. The tour concluded at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney on 7 October before departing for New Zealand.

The Blue Bird by Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck received its Australian premiere with Frederick Harrison’s Haymarket Theatre Company at the Criterion Theatre, Sydney on Saturday, 6 April 1912, and concluded its season there on Friday, 17 May after a run of six weeks, followed by a tour to the other Australian capitals. English actor, Claude Rains, who stage managed the tour, would gain fame in later years as a notable Hollywood character actor in such films as The Invisible Man (1933) The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) Casablanca (1942) Caesar and Cleopatra (1945) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962) amongst others.

The theatre program for the Melbourne season (which commenced at the Theatre Royal on 22 June and includes photos of the cast ‘in character’) may be viewed in full here on Trove.

Norman O’Neill’s incidental music composed for the play may be heard on YouTube, played by the Court Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer, recorded by Columbia in Wigmore Hall (London) on 25 February 1927.

[11] Clyde Meynell joined JCW Ltd. as a managing director in 1911 and celebrated his 30th year in theatrical management in 1921, as recounted by the following newspaper report marking this milestone:


Mr. Clyde Meynell, one of the four managing directors of J.C. Williamson, Ltd. enters to-day upon his 30th year of theatrical direction, during nearly half of which his artistic experience and good judgment have powerfully influenced for good the course of stage enterprise in this country.

Not many people are aware, outside the immediate circle of his intimate friends, that the manager comes of an old Dutch family, which established itself in Yorkshire shortly after the arrival in England of William Prince of Orange. His own name Is Clyde van Straubenzee, and many of his relatives are in the British army, notably his brother, General Casimir van Straubenzee (retired), who before the war, was colonel of the Suffolk Regiment at Aldershot, and afterwards was in France until disabled, ultimately sharing a divided command as general in the north-east district, with Leeds as headquarters.

When 16 years of age Clyde Meynell adopted that stage-name, in order to join the company of his old friend, Carlotta Leclalr, a celebrity, who at the same time started another beginner, Violet Vanbrugh. Young Meynell’s parents urged him to study medicine, however, and after a year’s experience in “stock” he took his degree at Edinburgh University, … and was coached by Dr. Richard Berry, now the learned anatomy professor at Melbourne University. Nevertheless, after practising as a surgeon for a year, Mr. Meynell returned to his first love, first with Frank Harvey’s company (that actor-manager being father of the artist so well-known here), and then with the famous Compton Comedy Company, of which Harcourt Beatty was then a member. From that time on Meynell took up management, beginning with Horace Lingard and Alice Dunning, next with Miss Fortescue, who was awarded £20,000 for breach of promise on the part of Earl Cairns’ son (a still standing law record), and again as resident manager of theatres at Bournemouth and Southampton.

Various speculative enterprises in England followed before Mr. Meynell represented Beerbohm Tree, and in that way came to Australia in 1903 as general manager for the Julius Knight and Maud Jeffries combination in “Resurrection,” “The Eternal City,” and “Monsieur Beaucaire.” Independent management on this side in partnership with the late John Gunn led to the importation of various English stars, and in 1908 Sir Rupert Clarke joined the firm. A very noteworthy period In our stage history began with “Miss Hook of Holland” and “The Arcadians” and sustained by the arrival of Oscar Asche and Lily Brayton, Ethel Irving, and Matheson Lang. Sir Rupert Clarke and Meynell amalgamated with J.C. Williamson, Ltd., in 1911 and the latter was for five years (1915–1920) London representative, during which period he joined Sir Alfred Butt in staging “High Jinks” at the Adelphi, where the piece ran for more than a year.

The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW), Thursday, 7 April 1921, p.10,

Additional Sources

Ian G. Dicker, J.C.W.A Short Biography of James Cassius Williamson, The Elizabeth Tudor Press, NSW, 1974

Eric Irvin, Dictionary of the Australian Theatre 1788–1914, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1985

Viola Tait, Dames, Principal Boys … And All That, Macmillan, Melbourne, 2001

Michael & Joan Tallis, The Silent Showman, Wakefield Press, South Australia, 1999

Raymond Mander & Joe Mitchensen, Theatrical Companion to the Plays of Shaw, Rockliff, London, 1954